In many ways, Chiapas feels more like an independent Central American nation rather than a small state within the Federal Republic of Mexico. Indeed, Chiapas was governed from Antigua, Guatemala rather than Mexico City during the Spanish colonial era. When independence from Spain was achieved throughout the region, the citizens of Chiapas voted to join Mexico and not its natural suitor, the United Provinces of Central America. The cacti and dry shrubbery that dominate landscapes in Mexico are almost entirely absent from Chiapas, which is instead draped in verdant rainforest. Chiapas is one of Mexico’s most indigenous states, with nearly a third of the population speaking indigenous languages. Most of the indigenous peoples are descendants of the Ancient Maya, who migrated from their great cities in the lowlands of Yucatan and Guatemala to the highlands of Chiapas after their civilisation’s mysterious collapse.
Indigenous culture is more pervasive in Chiapas than other Mexican states, including even Oaxaca. Chiapas’ culture and touristic attractiveness is defined much more by its indigenous peoples than its colonial heritage. And yet, like elsewhere in Latin America, the indigenous population is disempowered politically and economically in Chiapas. Their marginalisation initiated the Zapatista’s movement in the 1990’s, which sought to secure indigenous rights and autonomy. The Zapatistas occupied key towns in Chiapas, but were eventually subdued by the Mexican military.
They remain politically active, although their once widespread support has waned. Chiapas is Mexico’s poorest state and the socio-economic disparity of Chiapas with other areas in Mexico (especially Mexico City) is very apparent.
While San Cristobal de las Casas is neither the capital nor largest city in Chiapas, it is certainly the state’s cultural and touristic centre. This has created the rather unusual circumstance where tourists totally skip the region’s constituent population base, most likely ignorant even of its name (Tuxtla Gutierrez). Since I am not an aficionado of dusty and monotonous concrete jungles, I opted to follow the masses and travel straight to San Cristobal. I stayed in San Cristobal for five nights (Nactus just four nights) and used the town as a base to explore the Chiapan hinterland. San Cristobal is a highly atmospheric colonial-era town situated within a cool highland valley in central Chiapas. Valley walls rise above San Cristobal and are covered in pine forests, providing naturalistic views from anywhere in town (unique for an urban area). The historic core is excellently preserved, with cobblestone streets, lively plazas and pastel-coloured buildings with terracotta roofs. Perhaps this description sounds familiar?
What differentiates San Cristobal aesthetically from other Mexican towns is the lack of pretentious architecture and “Spanishness”, which is reflective of its ethnic composition. Buildings are instead humble and quaint, rather than bombastically colourful or decorative. Gargantuan Mexican flags, mariachi bands and other idiosyncratic Mexican elements are also noticeably absent. Instead, there is a strong indigenous presence in San Cristobal, since the town is surrounded by Mayan villages. The indigenous people congregate particularly at the central market and they are easily distinguished by the traditional clothing they wear. Unfortunately, many indigenous people live in abject poverty on the periphery of San Cristobal, displaced from their villages after converting to Evangelical Christian religions. This has occurred because of the interventionist practices of Westerners, determined to interfere with traditional customs.